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The Sunset Limited

Cormac McCarthy's existential life-or-death drama receives a superbly cast production. logo
Austin Pendelton and Freeman Coffey
in The Sunset Limited
(© Michael Brosilow)
Cormac McCarthy'sThe Sunset Limited, now on stage at 59 E 59, is essentially a debate about whether or not life is worth living. If you are convinced by Austin Pendleton's deeply anguished character that suicide is preferable to existence, then you are probably not reading this on your laptop as you dangle from the Brooklyn Bridge. The argument for living, expressed by Freeman Coffey's life-affirming character, is understandably a good deal more conventional. However. pains are made by McCarthy -- best known as the novelist of All the Pretty Horses -- to jazz up that point of view as much as possible by making that character a former prison inmate who once had murder in his eyes.

This intermissionless two-hander owes much to the existentialists. There is even a comic throwaway line about Kafka. Be that as it may, this play of ideas is anchored by two gifted actors who manage to invest considerable humanity into what is essentially an intellectual slugfest centered around two diametrically opposed points of view. Moreover, while the content of the dialogue leans towards the metaphysical, the style of its delivery is surprisingly naturalistic.

The play begins after the failed suicide of Pendleton's character -- who is named "White" in the program but who is otherwise referred to as "The Professor." He is an obviously educated man and fully able to articulate his misery. His counterpart, Coffey -- named "Black" in the program -- has saved the other man's life, and the pair are now in Black's dingy kitchen (realistically designed by Scott Neale). Driving their debate is this unspoken question: Will The Professor leave the apartment in order to end his own life or will he be convinced to live another day? The answer may surprise you.

The piece is superbly cast. Pendleton's "Professor" is often ironic and sarcastic, yet the actor exudes a winsome combination of intellectual rigor and sheepish embarrassment. Coffey's slang-driven dialogue gives his character attitude, style, and a history. This is a kind man who is passionate in his religious beliefs; his grounded sincerity makes him less a zealot and more a Samaritan who, in good conscience, can't let the professor leave without making every possible effort to sway him from his course.

Sheldon Patinkin's direction is limited by the enforced simplicity of two men sitting at a kitchen table and talking. The directorial and acting choices become smaller but, therefore, more magnified. For instance, at the beginning of the play, Pendleton won't look at Coffey and that defines their early relationship. And, of course, any movement towards the door by Pendleton carries with it a potential death sentence, just as any movement by Coffey to block him suggests a possible physical confrontation.

In the end The Sunset Limited does not ask you to believe either man's point of view about life and death. It does, however, provoke us to wonder why we're here and to what end. The ultimate question raised by McCarthy isn't should we live or die, but rather what should we do while we're living.


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